Exit Wounds: On the Roots of Violence—and Its Complicated Aftermath
I should start with what happened: I’m on a bus, traveling back to Chicago on the first sweltering day of summer. Actually, the bus isn’t traveling yet. We haven’t left the “station,” which is just a sign stuck into a cement plinth that someone rolls away after the bus leaves. Later, someone will worry about security. Someone will say this was bound to happen.
I’m on the second level of the bus, putting on headphones, wiggling into a position of apathy against the window when I hear shouting downstairs. The sound doesn’t quite peak or harden into language, but it has a rhythm, and the rhythm is urgent, and then it’s afraid, and then it’s angry. What animal instinct awakens that knows something is wrong? It’s a double decker bus. The kind used for interstate travel. There is one row of chairs in front of me and then the stairwell, leading back down to the first floor. The man sitting in front of me is wide-eyed. He can see down to the lower deck. He leans back, looks at me, and bandies his hand around in the shape of a gun.
Fear sharpens me into the moment. Anxiety surges through the crowd. I notice everything: a freckled girl sobs on the phone to her mother, a woman in cutoffs rubs her legs anxiously, a young man in sunglasses and a black T-shirt leans his head against the window and sets his jaw; he looks almost bored. I’m moving without thinking. I cross to the other row, which feels safer, brighter. I’m running on superstition and impulse. People are on the phone to several different dispatchers. They speak in the choked timbre of panic.
In my new seat, I handle the red emergency latch on the window, picture it coming free of its frame, sloughed off like shed skin and shattering against the pavement. I am wondering if it is too far to drop, too dramatic for us to all pile out the window and scatter like insects, when a police cruiser comes squealing into the parking lot in a siege of sound and light. For a moment, time means nothing. It dilates to a ripping point. Fear is miraculous like this: a physical medium. Where does it come from? Dropping over us like a curtain. The officer opens his door as a barricade, kneels in its hinge, and fires. No warning.
You don’t see the bullets, I realize. Of course not! They are just coils of smoke in the air, a burning smell. They live in the future—sounds reaching me after the fact, six percussive beats as fast as the machinery can reload. They come battering around the aluminum tube of the bus. Errant, angry things. One passes through a window—leaves a pile of green-tinted tempered glass on the pavement. Another goes through our cheap seat coverings with a tearing sound, probably. And a third ricochets all the way up to the second floor and passes through the fat and flesh of a passenger’s waist. It chips his hip bone like a teacup, then lodges itself in soft plastic. The gunman runs and falls. I can’t see him, but I can see the heads of other passengers pressed against the window, following him. They stop dead as he collapses against the sidewalk. Whatever separates us from raw emotion—shouting, weeping, beating your fist against something—becomes shell-thin. At a high enough pitch, all emotions are the same.
When it’s over, the cruiser is still rocking with the momentum of its entrance.
A story ran in the Columbus Dispatch a few days after I returned to Chicago: “Man charged in Megabus hijack attempt tells courtroom he is mentally ill.” In the picture at the top of the article, I saw his face for the first time. He survived. He was only struck in the hand, despite the seven wild shots—or was it six? Memory immediately distorts the world and is in turn distorted by it. His gravest injuries were sustained from a fall as he attempted to flee the scene. An ambulance took him to the hospital, and he was released into police custody later that day.
In the photo accompanying the story, his mouth hangs open in a wild shout. He’s pressed against his lawyer, a pale public defender several inches shorter who is making a futile effort to quiet his client. The picture was deeply effective if its intention was to inspire fear, to justify violence. This is how fear replicates itself. The contrast makes him look imposing, unpredictable, crazy. It’s a photo of a man caught in the tautology of mental illness: made to look insane by admitting I’m sick, punished by demanding relief.
I learn his name, too: Arsenio Rodriguez, like the Cuban Bolero musician. Is this a coincidence or does some long, specific story unspool from it? Is his family Cuban? Did his mother love guaracha? What music filled his childhood home? What records collected dust on the shelves? The article doesn’t cover that. They don’t have the space. Readers, it’s assumed, do not have the attention span. Instead, it delineates his criminal record: a stone thrown through an ex-girlfriend’s window and a subsequent restraining order; an incident at a Rockville, Maryland, bank, in which he had screamed at a teller but was never prosecuted; a second restraining order granted by Prince George’s County that December; and pending charges for malicious destruction of property, second-degree assault, disorderly conduct, and trespassing.What tense is there then for an event that recurs, for one that is complete and ongoing, the past but also the present and by extension likely the future?
There are, of course, two ways to read this. On one hand, this long string of violence and outbursts could be—and for the most part was—read as the reason Arsenio should, for safety reasons, be separated from the community, which in this case means being sent to prison. And it is for the safety of the community that this decision is justified. But on the other hand, could there be a clearer indication that Arsenio was losing his mind, that he needed help and treatment, than a rock thrown through a window, than screaming at a bank teller? In this other reading violence works as a form of language: a call or a plea, desperate and wordless, a last recourse when all other language fails.
I was often asked to tell the story of what happened, and I kept telling it even after people stopped asking. Everyone was interested the first time, but they were not as interested as I was. I could endlessly reshuffle the pieces, adding a new detail I had forgotten, now recontextualized through the statistics and history I had begun burrowing into: facts about schizophrenia, the Nixon administration, police shootings, weapon sales, and spray-painted airsoft guns. I could tell that I was boring everyone, repeating the same story. I knew these facts didn’t hold for others the same sacred logic they held for me, but I kept repeating them anyway.
Every weekday, back in Chicago, I would take the train fifty minutes from my apartment in Edgewater to my job west of the loop, transferring once at Belmont and getting off at Merchandise Mart. On the L, the air was always tight and netted with voices. In the morning people read the paper; on Fridays, men in suits flipped ties over their shoulders and cracked open beers. These were normal things, benign, and yet I found myself getting off the train with relief. My brain was having trouble distinguishing what was dangerous and what was safe.
Most mornings, after I got off the train I would walk the rest of the way over the Wells Street Bridge. It was the water, especially on calm overcast days, that reminded me. Though “reminded” isn’t the right word. A re-experiencing. A resurfacing. Something about the dark, wet surface of the water forces his flank into my sight. I see it catching light, glossy with blood. Not the exposed red blood in the open air, but blood making his T-shirt dark and wet, so much blood it’s consuming his side, spreading quickly through the fibers of his pants and shirt. We didn’t even notice that one of us had been hit. Even he is too shocked to register the pain. He feels only dampness and then an irritation deep in his side, itching he couldn’t quench. Or so I imagined . . . so I imagine when something I see, or hear, or smell dovetails for a moment with the past and pulls me back. And then I hear again the savage noise that crawls up and out of someone’s throat. The woman in cutoffs calling for a towel, an extra shirt, to press into the wound. He is so calm, standing in the aisle like he’s searching the crowd for a friend’s face. His seatmate leads him down the stairs, shreds of cotton turning to rust under her hand.
I receive two text messages saying: “You’ll have to write about this.”
Writers are always waiting for something interesting to happen to us, or at least I was. It’s not the ticket I thought it was. When something finally happened, I spent years trying to figure out what to say, what tense to put this in. A teacher once told our class that literature should always be written in the present tense, in a perpetual and ongoing present—an always already present—because at any moment you could pick up the book again at any place in its pages and find it was still perpetually in motion. I taught English as a second language for several years and learned a lot about tenses, things most native speakers take for granted. Like the fact that tenses have as much to do with completion as they do with time. Has the action ended or does it continue, was it ongoing at the moment you spoke or was it anticipated, stretching out into an imagined future? That the future is always something imagined, something conditional and subjunctive, is another idea coded into language that we hardly register.
On the streets some days, I see the flashing of police sirens; I hear a man’s harsh voice on the street, and I step backwards in time. I have read this is common in PTSD patients. It took me forever to name the experience. In fact, someone else had to do it for me. I still balk at the term a little, unwilling to reduce my feelings to a diagnosis penned in by the parameters of a clinical checklist, a WebMD page. I want my affliction to be singular. At times it feels precious to me. I want to keep it pristine.
What tense is there then for an event that recurs, for one that is complete and ongoing, the past but also the present and by extension likely the future? I want a tense for blurred time and blurred subjects too, that accounts for the failure of memory—its omissions and additions—that does not just speak uncertainty but encodes it in the very structure. A tense without time. We don’t have language for this: the cruiser rocking, the sun beating, the bullets forever in motion even after they have landed. Time honeycombed, collapsing, piles up on itself.
I rarely remember my dreams, but I begin thrashing my way out of them. I will be in the middle of a nightmare about fear and helplessness—clawing at the ground for purchase, or trying to mop up the blood of a friend who’s been shot: there aren’t enough paper towels!—when everything comes back online like an engine catching, and suddenly I’m up, shouting into a dark room. My sister wakes me up one night while we’re traveling together. I’ve been tossing and mumbling in bed. In the morning, I’m too embarrassed to ask her what I was saying. Another night, I startle my boyfriend awake, shouting. “What the fuck. What’s wrong?” he asks, flipping over to aim his concern at me. I’m sweat-drenched and upright, staring into his closet, slowly piecing together where I am. My fear sublimates into an immediate, irrational anger.
“Nothing! People have bad dreams,” I say, wrapping the top sheet around me like a toga before stalking out of the room.
“Hey, I need that,” he says as the door shuts.
What the article didn’t cover: the closure of the asylum system starting in the 1950s, the over-reliance on tranquilizers and antipsychotic medication in the years after, the gradual but steady defunding of the health clinics that were supposed to cover the gaping holes left behind by the shuttering of large state hospitals. The attack was random, but what does that mean? That it wasn’t targeted? That it wasn’t planned? That the logic of the attack does not play by the rules of the sane? Or that the history is too long, too knotted with failures and false promises to be untangled?
It is unfair to expect this level of cultural and historical insight from a one-page article in a local newspaper, but the way it was framed made the violence appear absent of history, loosed from a chain of cause and effect, and for all those reasons more horrifying. It is easy to pin violence to a single moment, and that might be one of its greatest appeals, its singularity, its temporal limits, its sharp provocative edge, like a tool. But violence begins early, spreads soundlessly. It breaches the surface in a single moment, yes, but its roots are as patient and rhizomatic as a fungus.
Here is one branch: More than age, more than race, more than armed or unarmed, the existence of a mental illness is a greater indicator of whether someone will be shot by police. In 2015, prompted by a lack of national statistics, the Washington Post began compiling information on police shootings throughout the country. There were approximately one thousand such killings, and of those killed one fourth were suffering from some type of mental illness. Despite implicit bias and de-escalation training, the mood of the country notwithstanding, they repeat with unnerving regularity year after year.
The theory is that relatively rare events within huge populations will not fluctuate without massive social change. But I have my own theory: that there is something sacrificial buried in these numbers, a blood offering, a willingness to avoid fear at all costs, even if the cost is another person’s life. Online, you can see these lives plotted as a line graph expressing violence on the y axis and time on the x. Each year is the same steady snail’s trail of ink inching up and out at a 45-degree angle. Like this, abstracted and aggregated, the project has a clinical feel to it. The cold dispassion that often accompanies academics or politicians discussing violence in places or lives far removed from their own. To combat this, the project includes descriptions of each reported killing and links to longer articles written by local reporters. Most of the paragraphs are concise and distant, offering just the age of the victim, the location of the event, a sentence or two describing the events. Some are baffling, others brutal in their brevity, reading like an exercise in space and impact. How can you lead a person from living to dead in as few words as possible? How can you make it hurt while staying objective? I quickly became obsessed with the descriptions.It is easy to pin violence to a single moment, and that might be one of its greatest appeals, its singularity, its temporal limits, its sharp provocative edge, like a tool.
The summer after the incident, I spent many nights in a café named Kafein— jagged, lightning bolt–shaped letters spelled out the name against a black awning— submerged in research, obsessing over this database, drinking cup after cup of coffee as light slowly drained from the sky. I knew that I wanted to write about what had happened, but I didn’t know how. I imagined that with enough dogged tenacity, research could carry me through some imagined finish line. I filled and labeled folders with tantalizing slivers of information, stories that I found particularly interesting—the man armed with wasp spray, a sixty-six-year-old woman holding first a pair of scissors then a baseball bat—or stories that seemed to fit with particular themes—Unusual “Weapons” read one folder, People Calling for Help read another. I had a document labeled “notes” that was just three pages of hyperlinks to associated white papers, PDFs, and local news articles. And after a few weeks I had ten different drafts with ten separate arrangements. It was the writer’s equivalent of pushing my food around the plate: the shape changed, but nothing was added or lost.
On these nights, I would trudge home feeling like I’d just spent hours trying to thread an impossibly small needle, my head buzzing with caffeine and atomized violence. My work was taking on the quality of those collages strung with red yarn that are used in movies about serial killers or intricate conspiracies. An image that only means one thing: the character is becoming unhinged. Sometimes, unable to sleep, I would go grocery shopping in the middle of the night. I liked the strip of bright windows against the night. The freshly restocked produce, the darkened meat counter, the rows of cold, glowing milk cartons—I found it all very comforting. The only people in the store at that hour were other insomniacs—we barely saw each other, shuffling around the aisles—and undergrads working the night shift at the checkout counter. Everyone seemed too tired to pose any real threat.
Months after the event I was still thinking about what happened. My mind was stuck on a single question: What would have happened if I hadn’t changed seats? Would I have been the passenger who got hit, the one lead out of the bus leaving behind a ribbon of blood, or worse would the bullet have gone right through my stomach? My chest? These events were all long sealed by time—there was no point in continuing to think about them. Sometimes, I would rub the spot where I had imagined being hit. Sometimes, the fantasy was so strong I would gasp or shudder for no apparent reason.
I saw violence everywhere. Sitting on a train one day, I became fixated on a man who pushed his way onto the train with a laundry basket of rumpled clothes and newspapers. He stood in the corner, consumed in his own private thoughts and conversations, shouting from time to time to the rest of the train car. I would not let myself turn to look directly at him, afraid of inviting a confrontation. But from the corner of my eye, I was convinced that he was looking at me, staring even. I was afraid of him, and ashamed of this fear, aware even of how illogical that fear was, but as the sun dropped over the skyline a sense of impending doom surged through me. I heard the bullet first, or was it a brick, colliding with the train, blowing through the window behind me. Then I saw the shattering glass and the bloodied plastic interior of the wagon. Blood from whom? I didn’t know. And the train compartment was no longer a train, but the hot, bright bus.
The feeling was so intense, I held my breath waiting for it. I considered changing seats, but instead, when the train stopped, I stood up and walked onto the platform. I told myself that I would get on the next one, but when it arrived, I stood in front of the doors unmoving. I was like a stone in a river as passengers streamed around me. Then the conductor called, the doors rattled shut, and I stood there watching the train curve and vanish down the track. I walked the rest of the way home.
No one talks about the waiting. How dull it is to get caught up in tragedy, how hungry you get. Hours pass on the bus, police tape is strung, ambulances come and go. The engine and the air conditioning are off, so the bus gathers heat and stinks like a foot. Sunlight beads on our necks. I surprise myself by getting bored. I know we were just in a shooting, but can we leave already? I take calls from friends who have somehow heard about what happened. I hang up on one local news station asking for an interview. When we are finally allowed to get off, we step carefully over the trail of blood, which runs like a ribbon twisting in the wind—widening, narrowing, sun browned, and puckered by specks of dirt. We’re instructed not to disrupt the crime scene. We’re told to leave everything behind. We stumble out, covering our eyes with our forearms, blinking in the keen summer light. We enter, unwillingly, the churning of the criminal justice system. We lose our autonomy. We’re led away like toddlers or criminals. In an alleyway, while the bomb squad pulls our luggage from the undercarriage and a mechanical arm picks through our wadded underwear, we press ourselves into a thread of shade against the building. We’re given bottles of water and crackers, and after someone asks, we’re escorted to a mechanics shop to use the restroom.
Another bus is summoned. We move from the alley to the air-conditioned interior with delight, but we are still not allowed to leave. We have to be processed first. A detective with a black notepad invites us out one by one to give statements. He’s like a caricature of a detective, curt as a French waiter. His face says “get on with it” so his mouth doesn’t have to. He rattles through questions from his black notebook. Mostly I nod or say, “I don’t know. I didn’t see.” Which is true, and, running through his questions, I realize precisely how little I saw. I didn’t even see the gunman. He was nothing but a voice and a shape indicated by a shower of bullets. Instead, I tell him about moving seats, about the girl on the phone with her mother, about the ribbon of blood. I tell him about the police officer skidding into the parking lot and firing. Did he write that down? None of it is useful to the detective. He lets me go back into the air conditioning.
On board another cop is explaining to the crowd that we might be asked to testify. If we’re called, he says, with false cheer, it will be all expenses paid, free flight, free room and board. I’m wondering who would want that, when a girl raises her hand like we’re in class and asks, “What hotel?”
The first time it happened was the worst, but not the most spectacular. I had no idea what was going on. The volume on the world seemed to get turned down, and I was suddenly convinced that I was going to pass out, or vomit, or drop dead right there on the stop. I was worried about what was happening, and equally worried about making a scene. It was summertime, twilight, and I was eating dinner on a patio with friends. No one noticed that I’d stopped talking. People kept on with their conversations. I could barely understand what they were saying, their words were so muted by my internal panic. That’s what it was, I would later identify: a panic attack. It’s so obvious when it’s over. That first attack hadn’t even been that bad, but they got worse.
Another evening, in the throes of a wicked hangover, one that left the world shimmering around its edges like a migraine, it happened. I’m at a Mexican restaurant with friends. I play it cool, try to breathe, but by the time we’re back at their place, playing video games from the homey comfort of their living room, it has become unbearable. I step onto the back deck. It’s winter in the Midwest. I take huge, swallowing gulps of the ice-crusted air. I lean over my knees and pant like a marathon runner. I’ve never been so aware of the circumference of my lungs, their cubic volume and tensile strength. I strain my diaphragm for more.
Back inside, I say, I feel like I’m having a heart attack, but I’m pretty sure I’m just panicking. Strange how both things can feel categorically true. Strange how there is no solution in admitting it. Yes, I feel like I’m dying, don’t worry, though, I’m definitely just overreacting, but also what if I’m not? No one is sure what to do, and I stand there feeling ridiculous and alarmed, until someone puts me to bed like a child. A friend puts their hand on my back and mutters to me in a soothing voice until the episode has passed, and I feel at home, and it seems impossible that in fact the world can be so sweet.
It was hard to believe that this was panic-induced, even if I had all the typical symptoms. Some days a portion of my face would feel as if I were contorting, as if it weren’t my face at all, and to assimilate this feeling I’d become convinced I was having a stroke—my anxiety always crystallized around the medical. I would suddenly feel like my throat was closing, like my body was simply going to stop, shut down like a machine switched off. I became convinced I was going crazy, and it didn’t matter that this was one of the top symptoms listed in nearly every account I read of panic attacks. My brain could wiggle out of any logic. If my chest hurt, it couldn’t be panic but a heart attack—it is cruel how similar the two feel.No one talks about the waiting. How dull it is to get caught up in tragedy, how hungry you get.
Psychosomatic: usually just a polite way to call something faked. But when I rush to the hospital after another attack a nurse tells me with sympathy that she’s seen patients pass out from panic attacks. The problem might begin in the mind, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t real effects on the body. Somatic—of the body—is at least half the word, an important and coequal player to psycho—of the mind. Why do we privilege the body with the real, and burden the mind with the imagined? People have reported losing their sight and their hearing from anxiety alone, even though there was nothing wrong with their eyes or ears. Perhaps it has to do with demonstrability: you can see the burn, the cut, the cast around a broken bone. What you can’t see is the panic, the depression, the numbness. Perhaps in this way passing out, losing your sight, watching your arms go numb and twist into a contorted claw, is the mind’s way of proving its pain, demonstrating it in the language of the body.
I am in the hospital specifically because my arms have gone completely numb for no apparent reason. I would marvel at this if it weren’t so terrifying. Now, nurses are pulling the cellophane backs off suction cups for an EKG and drawing my blood. One of them is very young. She’s in training; another, older nurse, stands behind her. The younger one keeps staring at the well of my elbow, its delicate tracing of veins, like she’s trying to remember her grocery list. She taps my bicep with two fingers to stimulate the blood, but she hasn’t yet put the rubber tourniquet on. Normally, I wouldn’t mind her blundering attempts, but when she looks over her shoulder at the other nurse for encouragement, I spiral back into panic. “Can you just do it?” I say to the older nurse.
A doctor eventually comes in and prescribes me hydroxyzine—an antihistamine —to make me drowsy. I don’t understand what good this is supposed to do, but I try it anyway. It does make me drowsy, so now I’m drowsy and anxious, and still can’t sleep. I lie in bed for hours watching television and counting the beats of my heart. After a second trip to the hospital, I’m given Sertraline. This is a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, the doctor explains, meaning nothing to me. I start off with half a tablet, which I crack in half by hand. The drug cuts my libido and makes my eyes bullet heavy; it doesn’t seem to help with my anxiety, but a friend suggests I keep a notebook of my feelings. “It’s hard to evaluate something that’s directly affecting your brain,” she says. My records are spotty, the results inconclusive.
Finally, we are released into a small parking lot. Our parents are waiting for us along with a small cadre of journalists. I’m able to hug my mother who cries into my shoulder, before my father drags me away for several interviews he’s volunteered me for with local news stations. “I don’t want to do this,” I say clearly, but it’s too late. There’s a stampede of reporters, and then I’m stuck. They have film equipment like miniature artillery. A TV personality with big hair and teeth like Chiclets gum is already sticking a microphone in my face.
Their questions are practiced and cynical: What happened? How did you feel? Who called 911? Was a passenger shot? Were you afraid? I know I am being baited for a sound bite, already slotted into a montage of shattered glass, blood stains, police tape. It’s awkward and embarrassing to have the floodgates of local media unleashed on me at once, all its mechanics laid bare. I feel protective of the story. Like somehow it is getting overworked, contaminated. I want to stop touching it, getting my fingerprints all over its pristine surface. I’ve already repeated the story over the phone to my parents, to the detective, now to the media, too. They want to take and shape it for their purpose; they want to shape it into something cheap and familiar. But I’m changing the story, too. Already, I realize how each time I recall the memory I lose a little piece of it. Remembering isn’t reinhabiting, it’s reconstructing, each memory a memory of what happened compounded with the memory of all the times I’ve had to reconstruct the original memory.
Will you be afraid of the people around you from now on? one especially shameless reporter asks. He hasn’t gotten what he wants yet. “There are dangers around every corner,” I snap, self-righteously, “we cannot be afraid of the people who surround us.” I want to punish him for the question, its inanity and transparent motives. I want him to stop talking, to be left alone. I want to shout: Do you really think I’m that stupid? But I guess I am. He’s getting exactly what he wants: a victim, a story.
For several months, I avoid the clip. I don’t want to see myself, how gaunt I looked, how young, how vulnerable. A lock of hair is pasted over my forehead with sweat. Finally, I give in and watch the clip. I keep the sound off. I don’t want to hear my voice, which I know will sound high and uncanny, which I will hate in equal parts for its alienness as its familiarity. Sound on or off: it doesn’t matter. I know what I’m saying, and I hate, too, that I cannot live up to my own words, that when a new bus arrived, I forfeited my ticket. I had been planning on traveling back to Chicago that night, but when the muffler fell off the back of the replacement bus like some gangrenous limb, something broke. That sharp slap of metal against asphalt, innocuous as it was, rattled around in my head, and I decided instead to spend the night at my parents’ house and drive back in the morning.
There’s a hairline fracture running through the center of this story. I don’t know what to make of it, but it won’t leave me alone. The gun wasn’t real. It was an airsoft toy spray-painted to look like the real thing. It shattered when stuck by a real bullet, a plastic hail against the pavement. It means that the only real harm was introduced from the outside, that the only real bullets were the bullets of police officers arriving at the scene. It also means that our fear was in the end our greatest danger, and that for a moment two things were true at once—the gun was both a toy and a mortal danger—like Schrodinger’s thought experiment and we are the cat. I’m bothered by this but have trouble saying exactly why. I am tempted to make a symbol out of the gun—for everything that seems threatening but isn’t, for all the ways we invite our own destruction—but symbolically is the worst way to interpret the world, and even a fake gun can call up real violence. I’m left dissatisfied no matter which way I try to twist the logic of it, like a joke or a riddle that gestures toward an answer but refuses to gel into one.
“Toy weapon” is a common phrase in the Post’s article. It is even one of the categories you can sort by. Nearly 200 of the 5,233 police killings included some mention of toy weapons, and it is just one of the many items used to justify deadly force. Others include pellet guns, BB guns, screwdrivers, metal pipes, rocks, Tasers, baseball bats, shovels, chairs, chains, wasp spray, pieces of wood, gardening tools, bar stools, flashlights, buckets, walking sticks, wrenches, beer bottles, hose nozzles, broom handles, and batons. The exact limit between toy and weapon begins to thin and rupture.
“I’m not terribly afraid of the police being afraid of me,” a friend of mine, who suffers from schizoaffective disorder, writes on his blog. “I’m white, and small. I don’t own any weapons and even my worst psychotic episodes have not involved armed threats of violence against officers or anybody else. But I’m afraid that I’ll need help and call the police, or that I’ll need help and somebody else will call the police and I’ll act strangely, or refuse to calm down, or run away, and wind up dead.” Schizophrenia presents a peculiar problem, in that a psychotic break can sometimes be threatening and very often appears threatening, even when there is no real danger. And one of the most disturbing trends in the stories I collected from the Post’s reporting was how often people were calling for help, either for themselves or someone else, before the victim was shot.
I kept a running list of these cases. There was the thirty-year-old Green Bay man who was shot in his apartment after his mother called the police to request a welfare check on her son. He had called her earlier in the day to apologize to her for being such a disappointment. There was an Arizona man who shouted, “I bet I can outdraw you!” to police after they responded to his 911 call. He was shot six times and later died. There was also the forty-one-year-old white man who was shot after his mother called the Ardmore police because her son was suicidal and had ingested rat poison. And the twenty-five-year-old Black man in Miami Gardens was shot after his mother called 911 because he was standing outside in the cold in nothing but his underwear, holding a broom handle. There was the twenty-four-year-old Bloomington man, and the forty-seven-year-old Denham Springs man, and the thirty-six-year-old Kennewick man, all shot by police after their mothers called 911 concerned that their sons were suicidal: He said he wanted to die. He said he wanted the police to shoot him. The pattern—suicide . . . mother . . . police . . . death—was heartbreaking in both its consistency and irony: the mothers who populated these stories were almost always seeking help, and their sons always wound up dead.
This is one way of saying that fear nests within other fears, is encircled by it. A tautology. A series of concentric circles.
What did Arsenio fear? I don’t know exactly. Even he has trouble articulating this. But there was fear in his voice as he raged at the entrance of the bus. What did he want? He demanded the keys to the bus, and when the driver said the bus doesn’t have keys he demanded his wallet, his rings, and the bracelet on his wrist. He wanted—needed—to get out of state, no matter how illogical this desire might have been.
I did not hear any of this. The bus driver recounted his experience, as we sat together on our air-conditioned bus in the alleyway. But I can still hear Arsenio’s voice screaming at the bottom of the stairwell. It’s a noise that sounds first like anger, then like fear, and then like pain.
I followed his story as well as I could as it wound its way through the court system. For two years he was housed in a state penitentiary waiting to be sentenced. There he claimed he was not receiving adequate medication, and there he once threw a cup of urine on a guard—a fact that was brought up in his eventual sentencing. He was finally sent to a state psychiatric clinic with a two-and-a-half-year sentence and five years of probation. A probation period that could easily turn into another eight years of incarceration.
I don’t know where he went after his two years. For a while I could see his record in a database of Ohio inmates, but the trail went dead when he was transferred to a psychiatric hospital. He would be out by now. The day he boarded the bus and demanded the driver hand over the keys, he was trying to get to Indianapolis. Maybe he made it—to Indy or whatever brighter future that city represented for him.
When does fear end? Not all at once. The popular myth of tragedy is that it’s transformative, life affirming. The arc calls for some resolution: I take a pill that neutralizes my anxiety, I visit a specialist who unlocks a hidden chamber in my brain, I spend my tax return on a one-way flight to Santiago and spend two months drying out in the maids’ quarters of someone’s house. Or maybe I do manage to dig myself out through research and sheer will. Maybe reading about people brutalized by police transforms fear into empathy—the process as its own product. The most honest answer is also the least satisfying: all of this happens to some extent or another, but none of these are the flipped switch or the tidy conclusion I’m looking for. One day, I get on a bus and am no longer as anxious as I used to be.
Still, I’m compelled to reach for some resolution, some connective tissue between Arsenio’s experience and mine. How is schizophrenia like fear? There are overlaps: the impossibility he must have felt in expressing his illogical needs to a logical world; the difficulty in describing PTSD, with its sudden triggers and magical thinking, to anyone who is not inside my head; the breakdown of language to convey either of our experiences; the fear. But really, they are not like one another. I know little about Arsenio’s suffering, and he knows little about mine. Maybe that’s true for all of us. Maybe we fail to understand anything but the crudest edges of each other’s experiences. And maybe none of that has anything to do with living in the world with one another. Maybe we do not have to understand to work toward what’s best for someone else.
The bus route connecting Columbus and Chicago has since been closed for lack of popularity. I no longer live there anyway. Sometimes I still jump when an air conditioning unit purrs to life on an empty street, when a steel plate collides with the pavement. I am left red-faced and sweating. There are days when I feel nervous boarding a bus, but these days are fewer and fewer. Sometimes I still wake up shouting, or dream that I or a friend has been shot on street corners or in convenience stores. It’s never a bus for some reason, and there are never enough paper towels.
“Exit Wounds” by Jonathan Gleason, reprinted with the permission of the New England Review. Copyright © 2021 by Jonathan Gleason.